Drama Melodrama Comedy Farce

I like Sidney Lumet’s breakdown:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

AI is really funny, and maybe, creative

I can’t stop laughing at the random stuff created by AI on AI Weirdness. These lists of AI-generated change.org petitions are wild:

Bad ideas/Lost Causes:
Dogs are not a thing!! Dog Owners are NOT Human beings!!
Help Bring Climate Change to the Philippines!
Taco, Chipotle, and Starbucks: Bring Back Lettuce Fries
Filipinos: We want your help stopping the killing of dolphins in Brazil in 1970’s
Mr.person: I want a fresh puppy in my home
Simple Stats Administration: Make Another proboscis.
Officials at Prince Alfred Hospital: Aurora to Tell The Company To Send A Baby to Mars
Sign Petition for Houston’s New Fireworks to be Offensive

And…

What?
Make a mudchat
Please not punish myself with a $20 fines.
Unicorn: Stop breaking crab products
Rooster Teeth : Have Rooster Teeth Fix Your Responses To Obama
The people of Great Adventure: get lil bl00ty moose loyal to us
The People of Kashmir : Ban of Airbrushed Bamboo Trees By Pune
Barack Obama, Barack Obama, and Barack Obama: STOP PING MY HUSBERS!
Saskatoon Police Service: No more scootty
One Highway, Four Hens, Highway 1
Rhino Amish Culture Association: Cut the horns of the congon sturgeon & treat it better!

And…

Seems reasonable:
Harmonix: Increase the speed limit on Easton Road to 5mph.
Everyone: Put the Bats on YouTube!
Donald Trump: Change the name of the National Anthem to be called the “Fiery Gator”
Taco Bell: Offer hot wings and non-perfumed water for all customers
Do not attack the unions! Keep cowpies!
Anyone: Get a cat to sing on air!
The people of the world: Change the name of the planet to the Planet of the Giants
Dr James Alexander: Make the Power of the Mongoose a Part of the School’s Curriculum

These are funny in the way that those “worst answers to tests” are funny — absurd and completely surprising responses, but in the right form. They have the form of petitions, but they’re insanely playful and creative instances of petitions.

I don’t know if it makes sense to all an algorithm’s output ‘playful,’ but I think ‘creative’ does make sense, if we think of creativity as the combination of disparate things in a coherent way. That’s basically creativity, yeah? At least one form of it.

Whatever it is, AI seems to be really good at it. On its own, it might just be a high-powered amusement generator, but when combined with a human writer/editor, it could be a powerful creative tool — as a writer, it’s really hard to get out of your own way and open the mind.

It’s far too easy to get stuck on a track, to limit where your ideas are sourced from (even within your own brain), to just not be creative.

Not to mention, how often do you have access to all of the possible combinations in your mind?

My brain is pretty mysterious to me, nothing like a database. I just have to kind of get into a certain state and hope that good ideas come through, like tuning a radio to a mysterious radio station.

But if there was a scanner to make all of the ideas available… to combine the ideas to generate new ones… well, now, that would be interesting.

Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

The phantom goodbye

That awkward time when someone is physically with you, but mentally they’re checking their phone for their ride share to come.

You can talk to them and it seems like they can hear you, but they’re not really listening, like talking to a ghost.

And then, just like that, they disappear into the night.

Reasons to watch movies

To go on an adventure (without personal risk).

To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.

To have something to talk about with your friends.

To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.

To laugh and have a good time.

To be scared.

To cry.

To feel understood.

To argue about something.

To escape the pain of your present life.

To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”

To raise your status.

To develop taste.

To learn about fashion.

To rebel.

To be inspired.

To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.

To distract yourself.

To share an experience with friends.

To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).

To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).

To connect with other humans.

To have something to talk about.

To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)

To learn how to make your own movies.

To learn how not to make your own movies.

To find a new identity or a new way to live.

To watch an actor that you like watching.

To be completely engaged and lost in a story.

To remind ourselves to be more x or y.

To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.

To critique or learn to be critical.

To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.

To understand someone else (through the movies they like).

To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).

Catharsis.

Drama / melodrama / comedy / farce

I love this definition of the big four genres, by Sidney Lumet in Making Movies:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

Shark Drunk

I loved Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean, a book about two friends hunting a Greenland Shark in northern Norway.

It goes into many interesting places: history, Norwegian culture, the nature of male friendship, and the immense and mysterious world that lies below the sea.

Interesting throughout and I highlighted a couple passages:

On the seaward side of the Vesterålen archipelago, they have a special word for the sound of the ocean when heard through a bedroom window on a mild summer night–the sound of water calmly lapping against the shore. The word is syjbårturn.

And this (related to Futility Closet’s “Pigs on Trial” episode):

One afternoon I describe how animals from the Middle Ages all the way up to the 1800s could be taken to court for breaking human laws. Dogs, rats, cattle, even millipedes were charged with and jailed for crimes ranging from murder to indecent behavior.

Defense attorneys were appointed, witnesses summoned, and every legal procedure of the day was followed. Sparrows were accused of twittering too loudly during a church service. Pigs that had attacked young children were sentenced to death.

In France, a pig was dressed in a suit, led to the gallows, and hanged. In 1750, a donkey was found innocent after an unfortunate incident only because a priest was able to testify that the animal had previously led a virtuous life.

The days of small things

I resolved to see the world with my own eager eyes. So I ran away from home, and in this way made an early acquaintance with the corrugated side of life.

I joined a small circus, and soon learned to conduct the Punch and Judy show, to do a ventriloquial act, and to play town clown on the bars — “gol darn it.” I also doubled in brass — that is, I beat the cymbals. I here gained the experiences that possibly ripened me into the world’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — a title which i have justly earned.

But there was a time when I was not recognized as I am now. Those were the days of small things. That was in the middle West.

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini

Houdini wasn’t a great writer, but he writes plainly and occasionally turns a great phrase.

I read this while researching thieves and con men for a project that I still haven’t quite found the right way into.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named

I’m moving again and it’s time to go through books that are good enough for me to mark up but not good enough to haul into storage while I figure out where I’m going to land.

Going through The Last Self-Help Book, I found some passages that I highlighted a few months ago and now I’m wondering if Walker read Bohm because there are a lot of similarities in the way they talk about art and science describing the world as it is:

Exhilaration comes from naming the unnamable and hearing it named.

If Kafka’s Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is the more exhilarating for being so.

The naming of the predicament of the self by art is its reversal. Hence the salvific effect of art. Through art, the predicament of self becomes not only speakable but laughable. Hellen Keller and any two-year-old and Kafka’s friends laughed when the unnamable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when the unnameable was named. Kafka and his friends laughed when he read his stories to them.

Less related but darkly comic, in that Kafka lol way:

If poets often commit suicide, it is not because their poems are bad but because they are good. Whoever heard of a bad poetry committing suicide? The reader is only a little better off. The exhilaration of a good poem lasts twenty minutes, an hour at most.

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.